global issues, language, philosophy, politics, science

On the Definition and Usage of Words

1. Philosophical Underpinnings

As a fledging apologist, my earliest experiences in the debate sector led me to frustration with people who couldn’t quite see the argument I was trying to make. They would often misinterpret and misunderstand what I had to say, taking ideas and twisting them. It seemed we had no common ground, so I endeavored to find that common ground – some set of ideas we ALL know are true. With such a common ground, I would hopefully be able to prove my points.

One of the first things I did was try to define words. In highschool, I read Socrates, and one of his famous lines that I took to heart was “the beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms”. What Socrates found was that people never really had a clear definition of anything, and thus no one really seemed to know what they were talking about. However, as I tried to come up with some philosophical terminology for defining words, I found the whole endeavor fruitless and meaningless. The truth was, words on their own had no exact definition.

That’s an important conclusion that can be and is very often misinterpreted. The underlying problem was that I was trying to find something “exact” and “specific”, defined in terms of words. But defining words in terms of words is philosophically identical to the problem of putting a rigid box into an identical copy of itself.

However, you’re reading this right now, which says that words are not as arbitrary as they seem. Let’s talk about that.

2. Nebulous Idea Definitions

In effort to refer to something with a word, I resorted to the concept of the “nebulous idea definition”. The intended idea behind this concept is not as nebulous in practice as it sounds.

Consider the word “square”. This word has limits on it. In fact, “square” is so limited that the ideal square cannot be mistaken for a circle (assuming it’s the right size for you to see). There are some shapes that resemble squares, and for the sake of simplicity and usage of the word, we refer to such shapes as “square” even though they aren’t exact.

Most real things are not as exact in definition, but having physical attributes provides definition. Consider the word “banana”. Bananas are supposed to be crescent-moon-shaped fruit with yellow peels when ripe and green peels when bad. However, many things with the crescent moon shape resemble bananas, so we might say they “look like bananas”, even though we know full well they aren’t bananas.

The problem with not having exact definitions is that there is some leeway between two ideas. Consider what would happen if we took a square and continuously rounded off the corners until it became a circle. At what point in this rounding process would it be more of a square than a circle? We are likely to disagree on when, even though we might agree on what a square and a circle are.

What would think if a banana were to evolve into an apple. Both are fruit, but that’s only a general category. Many things about the banana must change to make it an apple. If we replace part after part of the banana with apple parts, we arrive at the question: When does it become an apple? It might be very tempting to throw away the definition of “apple” and “banana” because it is possible to transition between the two ideas. However, each idea clearly has an ideal form (possessing distinct characteristics and physically measurable attributes). The solution is not to say “apple” and “banana” are equivalent. Rather, we should just accept the fact that the partially-evolved test subject does not fulfill either ideal.

The problem becomes even more ambiguous for abstract words such as “comfort”. For abstract words, the only recognizable traits are patterns and related experiences. These things are ambiguous without some physical representation. For the word “comfort”, the primary trait is emotionally positive and thus implies that ideas associated with it will lead to pleasure. Attempting to define “comfort” in terms of an exact definition will lead to an ambiguity that makes it indistinguishable from ideas like “a buzz”. However, we know there is a difference between these ideas even if we can’t explain them and provide an exact definition for them in words.

The fact that we can associate things that partially fulfill an ideal with the ideal itself shows that the definition of the idea (and the word representing it) seems to be stretchable and inclusive. It would be a grave error to think that those things/objects/items that partially fulfill the definition are considered on equal terms with things that do fulfill the ideal. That single mistake would make all words meaningless.

To make this whole concept of defining words and ideas more concrete in depiction, I decided on considering that definition of ideas to be based on a kind of statistical bell curve. The center of the bell curve is the ideal. Many variations are close and thus can be labeled in the same way as the ideal, but they are not the ideal. This bell curve is called the “nebulous idea definition”. The dimension of bottom “x” axis is the trait by which something is measured. Most ideas have more than one dimension, so there might be more than one bottom dimension on the graph. For example, in the case of the banana, the dimensions include shape, color, size, and various other physical attributes. The “y” axis dimension is the percentage that the idea fulfills the definition.

3. Definition Problems and Solutions

Various problems arise when trying to define ideas and trying to define words (which are two very distinct problems).

First is human memory, which tends to forget things. Memories tend to be somewhat vague, so when we attempt to define something exact, we struggle to relate it to an exact experience. Appealing to exact measurements of physical dimensions is one solution (as is the case with the kilogram, which is based on a real, physical, tangible block).

Fortunately, though, memory isn’t so bad that people forget things from day to day. Suppose we were to lay out on a table a bunch of apple-shaped objects ranging from what we consider ideal “apples” to other fruit. What would people pick as “apple” day after day? Generally, people will pick the same shapes. Admittedly, some people will change their categorization of objects day after day, but presumably these people are still picking what they believe to be the ideal, and naturally, their choices will still revolve around that ideal. Let me say that again: The natural choices will still revolve around the ideal. Even though there might be difficulty in choosing whether or not to include outliers, it would be a grave mistake to consider these outliers as having the same weight on the definition as the ideal.

4. Word Problems

In contrast with ideas, defining words has its own set of problems.

Words are simply mental associations with ideas. A person can muse about the definition of a word and lets its definition evolve within their mind so that it aligns itself with certain kinds of experiences and other ideas. Philosophers do this all the time, and thus are very particular about their choice in vocabulary usage when writing. If you don’t understand the definitions that they assign to their words, you’ll misunderstand what they are trying to say.

But words are not just for the mind alone; they are also for communicating from one person to another. The goal of communication is to convey an idea. Thus, the duty of sentences is to convey information (the expressible components of the idea), and the duty of words is to make possible the formulation of such sentences. However, for information to be conveyed, the ideas behind the words must be mutually shared in order that each person can formulate the idea in their mind in the same way as the other person.

Let me point out here that there is a difference between “mutually shared” and “mutually agreed upon”. The definitions of words are often “mutually agreed upon” by using dictionaries and accepting social ideas, which I’ll get to in a bit. However, for the definitions to be “mutually shared”, a number of things must happen:

First, the people must have the experiences with the same idea. For example, in the book Flatland by Edwin Abbott, a 3D shape attempts to explain to his 2D counterpart what a third dimension is like. To do so, he must describe it in ways that the 2D creature can imagine it and appealing directly to their mutual experience of dimension. However, the 2D creature cannot hope to fathom what 3D is like without the direct experience. Furthermore, the creature from pointland has no hope of ever understanding 3D dimension because it doesn’t even understand “dimension”.

Human ideas are shareable as long as there’s some common experience. We can appeal to ideas like “the sun”, “clouds”, “grass”, “community”, “mom”, and “water” because these are experienced by everyone.

A second requirement for ideas to be mutually shared is that people must understand them in the same way from their experience. With the “sun” this is easy. There is only one sun. However, for something like a “car”, this is more difficult. What’s the difference between a “car” and any other “vehicle”? Why isn’t a “tank” considered a “car”? Why isn’t a golf cart considered a “car”? People with different experiences will provide different definitions because they are trying to relate the idea back to things they know. For example, a color blind person may disagree with a normal person about the tint of paint used in a room because the color blind person relates their experience back to shades whereas the normal person has experience with actual color. Likewise, a person who is accustomed to dealing with military vehicles may be more inclined to exclude golf carts from the definition of “car” than a person who is accustomed to driving alongside bicycles, “smart cars”, and other small vehicles.

However, even if people share personal history and/or have similar experiences, another factor prevents having mutually shared definitions that directly align: brain wiring. Every person’s brain is wired differently, and consequently, people think of things differently. Some people prefer raw information in bullet points. Some people prefer poetry. Some people prefer a mixture. Some people understand mathematics in step-by-step instructions, whereas others conceptualize it better when it’s presented in limerics and diddlies.

Furthermore, the re-expression of ideas by people tends to be in a way their brain works and they feel most comfortable. Some people express ideas using vague notions that have emotional connotations, whereas others prefer expressing in terms of abstract mechanisms. Then there’s the cultural phenomenon of slang, which is disseminated more in urban areas (where people are in frequent contact and sharing ideas) than in rural (where slurring from laziness of speech is more common).

5. Keeping Common Ground

Despite all the problems with conveying ideas through words, you’re reading this right now and have a general idea of what I’m saying. That means you did understand to some extent. You have not mistaken my discussion about word definitions as an article about the habitat of frogs or how to manufacture paper.

We all have ideas about the “ideal” meaning of a word, and it is subjective, but the subjectivity of words can and should be relatively limited. Some fluctuation in definition is inevitable and even necessary for communication, but just because definitions change in SPECIFIC representation doesn’t mean the understanding of those words should.

If we didn’t all agree to a “standard” of speaking and writing, known as a “language”, it would be extremely difficult to communicate many ideas. Hence, some conformity to a standard is necessary. But what defines this standard?

Hundreds of years ago, Shakespeare wrote in English that is still mostly interpretable today even with the obsolescence of some words and cultural concepts. English didn’t change drastically over hundreds of years because people accepted words as referring to GENERAL ideas even if they disagreed on the semantics. In other words, it was a just an acceptance.

Then something horrible happened: The dictionary was invented.

6. Legality and the Curse of the Dictionary

A dictionary is meant to help people understand the meaning of a word by appealing to words they already know. However, like I discussed in the beginning of this article, the definition of words is like putting a box within an identical copy of itself. For example, the word “being” means “exist”, but “exist” means “being”. (Try looking them up.) The only escape is to appeal to some real experience, some real manifestation of the idea associated with the word.

However, in legal settings, the definition of words has become supreme to the idea. This happened because lawyers want to win cases and are willing to sacrifice or compromise truth in order to do so. Hence, they are willing to fudge facts, details, and terminology by rhetoric even though what they are arguing is wrong. They quibble over semantics and question the definitions of words so they can find the wiggle room necessary to argue their case. To combat this, legal experts find it necessary to rigorously define words. The problem is that – without a moral standard – there are only two standards to work with: precedence in established by previous court cases and the definitions of other words, which are themselves questionable.

Because words are used in communication, they have an enormous amount of power. If you can control the meanings of words, then you can control the ideas associated with those words and even reassociate words with new meanings. Such power isn’t easily obtainable when words are associated with general ideas. However, in any society where words are defined by other words or by cultural/cult pressure, the societal and legal definitions of words can be changed – resulting in public consequences – even though the subconscious understanding of each of these words is still associated with the original ideas people have experienced.

If such pollution of language is not prevented, a number of problems arise. First is that communication is no longer effective. You won’t be certain of how your audience will understand what you are saying. Words will lose the underlying ideas associated with them and become meaningless generalities such that it is no longer useful to even use them. Secondly, it will be increasingly difficult to look back at historic documents because the ideas associated with the words of those documents are no longer understood in the current era. Thirdly, people will be easily manipulated, abused, and unable to defend themselves because those with influence over the interpretation of words will be able to interpret their own arguments as favorable and associate their opponent’s arguments with negative emotional connotations.

Hence, it is critically important that words not be redefined and interpreted as one likes. In fact, with so much communication, humans should be more capable of restricting the definitions of words to actual things rather than letting words evolve with society and culture.

One partial solution is the implementation of encyclopedias because encyclopedias include imagery and can offer more of a direct relation to real experience. Unfortunately, encyclopedias – like any tangible standard – can be controlled and manipulated by people trying to set a particular definition of words.

CONCLUSION

There is no solution to the problem of communication. However, for the extremely important sake of preventing abuse, it is necessary to define words by common, real experiences – things that can be TANGIBLY REPRESENTED OR DEMONSTRATED!!!! To demonstrate “running”, a person need only to run. To demonstrate “comfort”, a person could climb into a pile of soft blankets and pillows in the winter and describe it as the feeling. For a more rigorous definition, it could be defined as by a brain state of low agitation, but this is harder for people to relate to.

Philosophy, language, law, politics, family life, science and research and all parts of society and culture will continue to suffer from the ambiguity of words. Therefore, it is necessary to appeal to the standard of the traditionally associated ideas and reject all new and liberal usages of words. Admittedly, this means that certain growth in cultural will be limited, but it’s like trimming a bush to make sure it grows in a healthy way rather than a wild, unhealthy way. We sacrifice the freedom for health, and for language, we must sacrifice freedom of usage for a healthy society and culture. In regards to the concern for the language being strangled: limiting the definition of current words does not at all limit the expansion of the language itself; new words can be added and incorporated, and it is healthy for this to happen.

Even though ultimately, language is subjective. I’m quite happy that you and I can communicate. Communication is critically important for the health of all of us.

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